To negotiate floods and cross streams, fire ants band together — literally — linking together to form rafts and bridges in a feat of social cooperation and biophysics. Now, engineers have made a close study of the ants’ architectural technique, pointing the way towards new approaches for robot designers and materials scientists.
To understand the properties of the ant structures, David Hu, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, sought to observe not just the surface of the ant clumps but the structure and joints underneath.
First, Hu and his team collected ant colonies — shovelling them, dirt and all, into buckets. After separating out the ants from the dirt, they then put 100 or so ants into a cup and swirled, causing the ants to form into a ball (no water necessary — they come together almost like dough). The researchers then froze the ball…
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